Lecture Series - 2nd July 2017

Q Station Lecture Series – Sunday, 2 July 2017, 2-4pm

·  Polio from prehistory to now – epidemics, vaccination and Rotary: Barbara and Nick Dorsch

·  Kenny versus the medical establishment in the management of infantile paralysis: Cate Storey

Polio from prehistory to now – epidemics, vaccination and Rotary

Polio is a highly infectious disease which has been around for thousands of years, with many famous victims from Claudius to Roosevelt. Most infected people have few or no complaints but others may have severe flu-like symptoms, and occasionally this leads to paralysis as the virus destroys the nerve cells that activate muscles. Affected limbs become floppy and lifeless, and muscles gradually waste away. In the most severe cases breathing is affected, occasionally fatally.

Last century saw the emergence of widespread epidemics that left many dead, and thousands paralysed for life. Rapid spread and the spectre of death or paralysis caused terror in populations, and recent books have had titles like “Paralysed with fear; the story of polio”, and “Dancing in my dreams…” The situation changed dramatically in mid-century with the introduction of effective vaccinations, first the Salk then the Sabine type. In the 1980s Rotary International and the WHO started a campaign to rid the world of polio – there were 350,000 cases of paralytic polio worldwide in 1988, and five up to mid-May in 2017. Final eradication, and the occurrence and management of post-polio syndrome, are continuing issues .

Barbara Dorsch is a physiotherapist who trained during the Sydney polio epidemics of the 1960s, and was involved in the respiratory and general care of many polio sufferers. She has maintained an interest in polio, and in the controversy of Sister Kenny, throughout a busy career in neuro and general physiotherapy.

Dr Nick Dorsch, a retired neurosurgeon, trained in London and worked mainly at Westmead Hospital in Sydney. He has seen polio in his family, and has been involved with Rotary International in the worldwide campaign to eradicate polio.

Kenny versus the medical establishment in the management of infantile paralysis

When “Sister” Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952) sailed into San Francisco harbour in 1940 the American Press eagerly awaited her arrival. The American public immediately embraced her; Roosevelt befriended and supported her. The Sister Kenny Institute was established in 1942 to continue and promote her work and to train nurses in her techniques. In 1946 she became the subject of a Hollywood movie, her part played by Rosalind Russell and in 1952, she was voted the most admirable woman in the United States. Yet the medical establishment were dismissive of her claims that poliomyelitis should be treated with mobility and not immobility. 

Elizabeth Kenny was born in an Australian country town and without formal training became a ‘bush nurse’. From here she developed her ideas about the treatment of the most feared often-debilitating infantile paralysis. But her ideas were contrary to those held by the orthopaedic establishment. Not deterred by the controversies and adverse outcomes of the official reports, she was able to establish Government supported Kenny clinics that employed her techniques. 

A long forgotten, unlabelled out patient record of some 200 patients (1935-37) was found in the archives of the Royal North Shore Hospital of Sydney. Most had a diagnosis of infantile paralysis; many were recorded as cerebral diplegia, and a small number of other neurological conditions. Further investigation identified a Kenny Clinic had been established at the hospital and had been the subject of a report to the Parliament of New South Wales. 

This study will look at this clinic and some of the politics behind this remarkable controversy in the history of poliomyelitis.

Catherine Storey is a neurologist at Royal North Shore Hospital and Clinical Associate Professor at Sydney Medical School. She is President of the Medical Alumni Association at the University of Sydney and an active researcher and author on the history of the neurosciences.

The program for 2 July will be posted on the Quarantine Station website: – see under heading: What’s on.

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